17 April 2007

15 March 2007 - A candle for fundamentalism

It’s nowhere near Chanukah, but I thought I’d reach into to archives again and post a piece I wrote over Chanukah back in 2001, back when I was living in a Muslim neighborhood and wrestling with all kinds of questions about Israel and Islam and the rest of it. I wrote the essay in response to the experience of hiding my Chanukah candles during Ramadan due to the risk of violent antisemitism in the area.

I got a few nasty responses from people who read this piece: one right-wing acquaintance said something like: “That’s what you get for choosing to live in a Gaza-like enclave.” Some of my thoughts seem vain and naïve to me now. For example, I think that whatever root causes encourage fundamentalism should be dealt with on an independent basis, not as a response to any kind of threat.

I also think there may be differences between Islamic fundamentalism and other kinds of religious fundamentalism, even though they all share certain core ideas and themes. I guess I was trying to reach out to a totally alien perspective. I also don’t think I’d again tolerate living in a neighborhood where I felt I had to hide my Chanukah candles. But it was a learning experience, one I’m really glad I had.

A Candle for Fundamentalism

(December 2001)

Like Jews all around the world, I lit my Chanukah candles this week. I thought to put them in the front window of my house, as required by halacha, or Jewish law, but changed my mind. I live in a working-class Muslim enclave in Cape Town that has been the site of violent demonstrations by Islamic fundamentalists in the past few years. So although I get along very well with my neighbors, I decided not to take the risk of attracting too much attention to myself. I put the menorah in the kitchen, in accordance with the halachic rule that allows you to hide your candles in times of danger.

As I did so, I thought of what Chanukah means to the Jewish people. We celebrate the liberation of ancient Israel from Syrian-Greek occupation, and the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it had been cleansed of pagan idols. We light the menorah to remember the miracle of the oil that was recovered in the sanctuary, which was only enough to last for one day but burned for eight instead.

Of all the festivals on the Jewish calendar, Chanukah is actually the one with the least religious significance. Yet in the United States, where I grew up, it is one of the most widely-celebrated Jewish holidays, popular even among non-observant Jews due to its seasonal association with Christmas. Its popularity is derided by some Jews as evidence of the widespread assimilation in the community.

Some refer to an additional irony: that the ancient Jewish revolt was not just a movement for political independence, but a struggle to reverse Jewish assimilation into Hellenistic Greek culture. So the holiday that is celebrated to remind us of resistance to assimilation in the ancient Greek world has become a symbol of our assimilation in the modern world.

Religious Jews aren't the only ones who are uneasy about assimilation and modernity. The events of recent months have drawn worldwide attention to the difficulties in the contemporary encounter between Islam and the West. And those difficulties are certainly evident here in Cape Town, even though Islam has existed at the heart of this colonial city for three hundred years.

A few years ago there was a string of bombings in Cape Town aimed at American symbols like Planet Hollywood and the New York Bagels delicatessen. Today, there is widespread anger at the war in Afghanistan and American support for Israel. Many of my Muslim neighbors, even those who are not particularly religious, feel a degree of sympathy for groups like the Taliban, and do not believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the World Trade Center bombings.

These events and feelings are connected to broader trends in the Islamic world, but also have specifically local sources of inspiration. The end of apartheid brought new freedoms to South African Muslims, most of whom had been classified as "non-white" or "coloured." But with new freedoms came difficult new choices, and many people found comfort in the simple idea of a society neatly divided into "Islam" and "not Islam."

Also, the social disorder, the rise in crime, and the spread of HIV/AIDS that followed in the wake of apartheid's collapse have increased the appeal of traditional Islamic sharia law in the eyes of many local Muslims. My neighbors will allow that the Taliban "went overboard" in their treatment of women and such, but that the essential goal of establishing a pure Islamic state was a noble one, whose passing is deeply mourned.

How can one counter this perspective? I have tried to convince my neighbors with examples of countries where Islam coexists with democracy. I have talked about the flourishing of religion in the United States, which persists in spite of (and some would say because of) a broad separation of church and state. All of these arguments fall flat, because my neighbors and I see the issues from within fundamentally different experiences.

Or do we? As I have observed my Jewish holiday this week, I have reflected on the fact that the heroes of the Chanukah story, the Maccabees, were the militant religious fundamentalists of their time. Their tactics were similar in many respects to those of Islamic militias today, in Lebanon, Kashmir, and elsewhere—the use of ambushes and quick guerrilla attacks to fight superior military powers, the appropriation of religious symbols for the war effort, the killing of collaborators, the celebration of famous martyrs, et cetera.

And although we Jews celebrate their triumph, in reality the victory of the Maccabees was somewhat ambiguous. The Hasmonean dynasty that was installed by the Maccabees was infamous in its later years for its brutality and even for its persecution of religious authorities. It also failed to alter the long-term geopolitical balance in the eastern Mediterranean; Jewish autonomy was short-lived, and was quickly followed by the Roman conquest and the Second Temple's destruction.

More broadly, the Maccabee revolt failed to end the association of Judaism with Hellenism—and we Jews are the better for it. Greek names and concepts have been incorporated into the core of traditional Judaism; the Passover dessert, for example, is still referred to by its ancient Greek name, "afikoman." Even the transmission of the Chanukah story itself would have been unthinkable without the Jewish association with Hellenistic culture—for the narrative was excluded from the Old Testament but incorporated into historical documents and Apocryphal texts outside of the religious canon. And the Jewish entanglement with Hellenism also marked the entry of Jews into the Western philosophical tradition, an encounter which not only had a profound effect on philosophy but on traditional Jewish religious thought as we know it today.

Perhaps the Islamic world could benefit from these lessons of the Chanukah story. Jewish history teaches that fundamentalist regimes are not only despotic, but end up desecrating the religious principles that they purport to uphold. Our history also illustrates that the encounter between religion and a broader liberal culture is not just one of conflict but also one of co-existence and cross-pollination.

There are, of course, important points of difference in such encounters: the polytheism of the Greeks is still anathema to Jewish theology, just as certain aspects of contemporary life in the West are problematic for Islam. But it is important to recognize that the two sides in each case are not diametrically opposed, and that there are aspects of their relationship that are mutually beneficial. Under peaceful and prosperous circumstances, there may be space for living in both worlds at once.

Yet if Chanukah proves the futility of fundamentalism in some ways, it also teaches us its importance. For although most Jews today would reject the militancy and religious zealotry of our Maccabee forebears, we draw a sense of pride from their achievements. And although most Muslims reject militant Islamic fundamentalism, for some it plays an important role in creating a sense of identity and a feeling of self-worth.

In this, Muslims are no different than the members of any other religious, social, or political movement in the world today. Fundamentalism gives living expression to the ideals of the communities we each belong to, and even if we may reject its approaches, it helps us discover who we are.

The solution to today's ideologically-saturated confrontation has to go beyond condemning Islamic fundamentalism. We all need to recognize the underlying political and economic causes that give fundamentalism such potency in today's Islamic world, and to address those causes with the greatest empathy.

For most of us in the Jewish community, even among our more traditionalist and nationalist elements, the miracle of the oil and the commemorative lighting of the Chanukah candles have come to supplant the more fundamentalist and militant themes of the holiday. That is not a symbol of assimilation, in my view, but a symbol of enlightenment.

The challenge in today's world is to encourage that kind of enlightenment in a broad, humanistic way throughout the world. Sadly, symbolic measures alone won't be enough. But knowing this, I don't mind hiding my Chanukah candles for the time being if it means I can contribute, in my small way, to the well-being of this struggling Muslim community in the new South Africa.

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